Few, if any footballers, can boast over 500 appearances for one of the world’s grandest clubs and leave the enduring suspicion that their potential remained somewhat untapped. Fewer still can claim to be as divisive or enigmatic as José María Gutiérrez Hernández, commonly known as Guti. Despite a wonderful career taking in 3 Champions’ League crowns along with 5 league titles with his beloved Real Madrid, Guti failed to obtain the true recognition his remarkable natural talent deserved, culminating in a decidedly low-key announcement of his retirement last week.
Admittedly, such a scenario is largely his own fault, with consistency a problem on the pitch as much as a weakness for fame’s more tawdry adornments was off it. Tall, left-footed, elegant and blessed a wonderful awareness of space, Guti’s class and flamboyance appeared to encapsulate the romance synonymous with Real Madrid. Emerging in the mid-nineties as part of self-styled football philosopher Jorge Valdano’s freewheeling side, Guti’s smooth singularity was immediately evident. A huge favourite with the ever influential and iconic honorary president Alfredo di Stefano, who praised the stylish schemer’s technique and imagination, it would nevertheless take Guti some time to really establish himself in the first team.
A European champion at under-21 level with Spain during the summer of 1998, the following season saw Guti feature in 38 matches at club level before capping his progress with the first of 13 senior international appearances (spawning 3 goals) in May 1999. Lamentably, his ascent was frequently marred by indiscipline, with 8 league dismissals throughout his spell in Madrid a troubling tally for a player rarely inclined to the rigour of defensive responsibility. Indeed, Guti’s reputation as a light-weight luxury would linger, with his perceived ‘effeminate’ approach to the game in conjunction with an experimental sartorial sense leading to frequent baseless and unnecessary speculation about his sexuality. In reality, many of Guti’s supposed shortcomings stemmed from the sheer purity of his ability; his languid gait and apparent nonchalence were mere consequences of his exceptional talent. For Guti, the game really was as simple as it seemed. True, his prediliction not to reinforce such gifts with greater drive or intensity was identified by former team-mate Michel Salgado as Guti’s only restriction to becoming ‘Spain’s Zidane,’ though the player himself may justifiably question the need to embellish a skill-set already capable of unlocking any defence.
Indeed, throughout his stay at the Bernebeu, Guti would enjoy some wonderful displays;arguably peaking with a career-best 18 goals, aided by his sometime employment as an emergency striker, in the 2000-01 season. Still, despite registering double-figure totals in each of the following 2 seasons, it is assists rather than goals that would define Guti’s career, with his famous ‘Heel of God,’ a move dubbed ‘an almost foolish miracle’ by an incongruous Marca, the ultimate expression of his wilful, infuriating genius. His critics were quick to highlight his weaknesses; lazy, self-indulgent, lacking in both pace and stamina and in possession of a petulant, abrasive arrogance yet despite the plethora of creative stars so recklessly and often needless acquired by one of the game’s more lurid clubs, Guti continued to feature regularly. Nonetheless, for all his flaws, the recognition that few in the modern game had Guti’s talent for playing the killer pass or clarity in identifying it remained inescapable.
More focused, more complete, even more talented players came and went during Guti’s 15 years in the Spanish capital and whilst at times relegated to a supporting role, the club and the almost comically-implausible 16 managers he would play (and in most cases, feud) under would remain largely faithful in his unique if intermittent inspiration. Manuel Pellegrini once mourned how the modern game was producing ‘explosive’ footballers at the expense of those ‘who really know what they are doing’ and although praising the anachronistic artistry of Juan Román Riquelme (another who appears heartbreakingly on the cusp of retirement), the Chilean’s comments could easily have been meant for Guti, albeit somewhat ironically given their subsequent volatile working relationship. Of course, the welcome influence of Barcelona and Spain’s collective majesty may have partially redressed the balance but in an age where witless athleticism is sadly sought, the loss of someone whose game rested on fantasy, invention and subtlety should be more widely mourned.
Tellingly, Guti’s recent (supposedly) controversial claims that his former club’s decision to offload probing academy product Esteban Granero and recruit the rather less refined Michael Essien ‘annoys me greatly’ as the Spaniard is ‘a much better player’ would appear to depict a man quixotically at odds with the game’s prevailing trends. Intuitively, Guti’s comments may be coloured by an idealistic attachment to the idea that graduates of the club’s cantera should be afforded more first team opportunities, just as Raúl, Iker Casillas and he were before starring in Real Madrid’s last European triumph, rather than recruiting inferior technicians from abroad.
Such sentiment however may also reveal an aesthetic sensibility diametrically opposed to that practiced by current coach José Mourinho and one many in Spain (and further afield for that matter) would delight in seeing reintroduced to a global institution with a rich and illustrious tradition of realising. Although surely temperamentally unsuited to management, Guti has spoken of his ‘dream’ to coach Madrid’s youth team, presumably with the hope of nurturing the next Casillas, Raúl, Guti or more fancifully Quinta del Buitre into the first team; an accomplishment which would crown a fitting post-script to the unfairly-maligned, sometimes spectacular career of a wonderful footballer.